More Autistic Students Sharing in the College Experience
> 11/6/2006 2:57:01 PM

At first glance it might seem illogical for students with even mild cases of autism to become involved in higher education - the popular belief is that they simply lack the mental and social capacity for such a demanding environment. But these very students are attending American colleges in ever-increasing numbers, and many schools must adapt to accomodate them and the unique challenges they present.
Autism can be a crippling condition for patients and loved ones, but many who suffer from it also have above-average or exceptional intellect, often leading to higher performance in specific fields of interest. Many of these students are academically qualified to attend college, but have difficulty adapting to the necessary changes in lifestyle. The repetitive tics and difficulties in communication that accompany autism can compromise the learning environment of other students, yet young adults with Asperger's syndrome, a mild form of autism, have long attended college successfully. Those in the field speak of autistic professors and students singularly devoted to technical subjects like mathematics and engineering. Due to greater knowledge and gradually receding social stigma, many more students with some form of spectrum disorder can attend school without much of the fear and isolation that set them apart before. Still, standard disability programs usually do not work for these cases, and schools are not knowledgable enough to make proper arrangements.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1975 affords specific funds to states in order to offer equal academic opportunities to students with one or more disabilities. Though the act applied at the time of its passage to children in public school, the scope has widened over thirty years to include higher ed. While it covers the right of all students to an equal education, it cannot address the more pressing problems facing the autistic community, many of which are social and emotional in nature. Most standard counselors do not have the time or training to assist these students, and some hire individual specialists, but their services can be very expensive and they often do not provide the day-to-day guidance so sorely needed. In response to these issues, some colleges have hired specially trained staff members and others encourage other students to help those with disorders to better adapt to their surroundings. Of course, such measures could have the unintended effect of further setting these kids apart when they need to be seen without judgement or prejudice by their peers.

When facing such challenges, college administrators must often make difficult decisions about where to draw the line between institutional help and the unlimited personal services that many parents and students desire. While many schools wrestle with the topic, online doctors offer advice to functioning autistic students who are either considering or preparing to attend college. The web also features multiple sites where people with Asperger's or autism can find community and better understand their own conditions. Major, often difficult adjustments are a necessary growing pain felt by every college student, but those with some form of spectrum disorder face a steeper climb than most, and increased public awareness of and sensitivity to these conditions is the most crucial element of ultimately satisfying their educational needs.

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